Conflict – an isolated event that can be resolved or managed?

TransConflict is pleased to present the first contributions to the inaugural Peacebuilders’ Panel, which is designed to stimulate debate about peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

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The first debate focuses on the principle that:

“1. Conflict should not be regarded as an isolated event that can be resolved or managed, but as an integral part of society’s on-going evolution and development;”

Professor Brian Walker, MBE, Winchester Centre of Religions for Reconciliation and Peace, University of Winchester

Thomas à Kempis, Consolations, c1430:

‘For, one temptation or tribulation going away, another comes; sometimes during the first conflict.’

Conflict is the ubiquitous human condition. Without conflict we would not evolve; would not develop. We would die, mentally, spiritually, and physically.

So, what is conflict?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines conflict as: ‘A mental or spiritual struggle within…’; ‘The opposition, in an individual, of incompatible wishes or needs of approximately equal strength; also, the distressing emotional state resulting from such opposition.’; ‘The clashing or variance of opposed principles, statements, arguments, etc.’; ‘A prolonged struggle.’; ‘Dashing together, collision, or violent mutual impact of physical bodies.’; ‘Fighting, contending with arms, martial strife.’; ‘An encounter with arms; a fight, battle.’.

Conflict is all of these, because it is an integral part of society’s evolution and development. Conflict is a dynamic relationship, internal to self, and between individual humans, communities, even nations, of cause and effect, which is often destructive. Destructive conflict is created by injustice, greed, intolerance, hatred… resulting in the mental, spiritual, and physical breakdown of those individuals, families, and communities.

Conflict is also constructive, when it inspires restorative justice, fairness, respect, love…

If so, how can we evolve and develop evermore constructive conflict?

Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe, 1977:

“Humanity has been sleeping – and still sleeps – lulled within the narrowly confining joys of its little loves. In the depths of the human multitude there slumbers an immense spiritual power which will manifest itself only when we have learnt how to break through the dividing walls of our egoism and raise ourselves up to an entirely new perspective, so that habitually and in a practical fashion we fix our gaze on the universal realities.”

By awaking, stimulating, inspiring each human to actions that transform conflict into a resource for peace.

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Mladen Stojadinović, TransConflict Serbia Associate

The essence of this principle is that conflict is never separated from its social environment. Conflict is a result of normal, regular and imperishable struggle and interplay between (legitimate and illegitimate) interests within a community, group or society. Only the system which is dead does not contain conflict, at least in a certain sense – as a contradiction of the aims of individuals or groups. Therefore, conflicts occur and have to occur; besides that, they enable social resources to be distributed differently, norms and institutions to be modelled in a way which is adaptable to changes that occurred in the meantime and to development in particular social fields.

The phenomenon to be afraid of – and which is to be restrained – is violence, not conflict. Violence means that someone is precluded of satisfying their legitimate interests (either directly, through the use of force, or in any other way), or there is a justification of the dissatisfaction of these legitimate interests. Legitimate interests are those emanating from human needs and rights. This principle which strives to explain conflict as an integral part of social life, and not as social pathology (that is actually created by dealing with conflict violently) represents one of the foundations of peace studies and conflict transformation efforts.

Furthermore, it is important to accept the terminology that sees conflict not always as something bad or ugly (i.e. conflict is not what we call by that name in everyday language – armed conflict), but as a problem to be solved, a moment in time in which one or several parties (through their behaviour, attitudes and/or through a contradiction of values and interests) come to the state of confrontation/opposition. This state of confrontation is to be transcended in a non-violent way, by respecting human needs and equal human dignity. If conflict had not existed (which is impossible), norms, institutions and patterns of interaction would have stayed unchanged and would not be in accordance with relations and general human dimensions in society.

Conflicts, from the largest to the smallest (in the family sphere or even inside a single personality – dilemmas etc.) often occur and disappear, prolong, intensify or calm down, or are driven to another level. It is a matter of creativity and basic approach (whether non-violent and human nature-based, or based upon power, manipulation and pressure) how many consequences and of what kind will be left behind after dealing with conflicts. Legal mechanisms could help in conflict pacification (by minimising violence); they can ensure previously defined (and reasonably just) procedures are used for dealing with conflicts within the framework of the system, but they can not represent a final, adequate nor ample method of answering the challenges of conflict.

Karen Siembieda, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Conflict does not manifest itself merely in the narrow confines of a direct clash between two or more sides. Rather it exists as a part of the societies it affects, and can be a large part of their progression. If conflict did not exist, governments would probably not exist and societies would not progress to higher degrees of development. That is not to say that every transition is preceded by a Marxist-style bloody revolution, but most changes in society result from some sort of conflict. New ideas and institutions are developed as a result of conflict and the resulting compromises reached in order to end the conflict.

Many fundamental ideas of government were established because of conflict. If the rebellion in 1215 against King John had been mitigated before reaching a conclusion, there may never have been a Magna Carta to establish rule of law. There is always a natural conflict between those who want change and those seek to preserve the status quo, and compromise between the two has always kept the balance.

However, while conflict can serve a necessary role in developing and evolving society, there are limits to this progression. When there is an excessive use of violence, or enmification becomes endemic, it hinders future relations between sides. This creates a situation where development can no longer occur because compromise cannot happen. This is the point at which conflict transformation is necessary.

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Please visit TransConflict.com tomorrow for further contributions on this question!

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